Book of the Month
Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York by Jonny Steinberg
Jonny Steinberg is a very curious man. The outstanding books that he has presented to readers over the past few years are testament to a man who is constantly questioning what he sees around him. Why does that person behave the way they do? What is the hidden meaning in that woman’s words? What confluence of forces result in this person feeling the way they do?
The combination of hard nosed investigative journalism, a gift for storytelling and an obvious empathy for the characters that he shadows makes Steinberg an author who demands to be read, whatever the subject matter. If his next book concerns the mating habits of Siberian fleas, I (and many others) will still flock to read it in expectation of being fascinated by the lot of the Russian biters.
In his latest book, Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York, Steinberg takes us to Park Hill Avenue on Staten Island, where a community of Liberians have made their home. Through interviews and shadowing of two community leaders, Steinberg strives to understand the peculiarities of this community; while it appears at times as if a piece of Liberia has been sliced off and dropped in New York, the Park Hill community is ravaged by conflict between different interest groups. To understand what is going on in 2008 New York, Steinberg travels back – back to Liberia and back to the country’s tragic recent history of civil war, military coups and mass exterminations. The story of Liberia is a gruesome and miserable one but Steinberg’s empathy for his subjects never allows the narrative to descend into voyeurism. A brilliant and important book which will delight Steinberg’s thousands of followers and doubtless earn him many more.
People and Places
Midnight on the Mavi Maramara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How it Changed the Course of the Israel/Palestine Conflict edited by Moustafa Bayoum
Eastern Mediterranean, Monday, May 31st, 2010, 4.30am: Israeli commandos, boarding from sea and air, attack the six boats of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla as it sails through international waters bringing humanitarian relief to the beleaguered Palestinians of Gaza. Within minutes, nine peace activists are dead, shot by the Israelis. Scores of others are injured. The 700 people on board the ships are arrested before being transported to detention centers in Israel and then deported.
Within hours, outrage at Israel’s action echoes around the world. Spontaneous demonstrations in Europe, the United States, Turkey, and Gaza itself denounce the attack. Turkey’s prime minister describes it as a ‘bloody massacre’ and ‘state terrorism’. Lebanon’s prime minister calls it “a dangerous and crazy step that will exacerbate tensions in the region.”
In these pages, a range of activists, journalists, and analysts piece together the events that occurred that May night, unpicking their meanings for Israel’s illegal, three-year-long blockade of Gaza and the decades-long Israel/Palestine conflict more generally. Mixing together first-hand testimony, documentary record, and illustration, with hard-headed analysis and historical overview, Midnight on the Mavi Marmara reveals why the attack on Gaza Freedom Flotilla may just turn out to be Israel’s Selma, Alabama: the beginning of the end for an apartheid Palestine.
How the West Was Lost: 50 Years of Economic Folly – and the Stark Choices Ahead by Dambisa Moyo
How the West was Lost charts how over the last 50 years the most advanced and advantaged countries of the world have squandered their dominant position through a sustained catalogue of fundamentally flawed economic policies. It is these decisions that, along the way, have resulted in an economic and geo-political see-saw, which is now poised to tip in favour of the emerging world. By forging closer ties with the emerging economies, rethinking trade barriers, overhauling their tax systems to encourage savings rather than ravenous consumption, and specifically addressing the three essential ingredients for growth (capital, labour and technology) it might yet still be possible for the West to firmly get back in the race.
Dambisa Moyo’s is the critically acclaimed author of Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is Another Way for Africa, and was chosen as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2009. She holds a PhD in Economics from Oxford University and a Masters from Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, and has worked at the World Bank and Goldman Sachs. She was born and raised in Lusaka, Zambia.
“Moyo’s diagnosis of the recent disasters in financial markets is succinct and sophisticated…I applaud her brave alarum against our economic and social complacency: her core concerns are sufficiently close to painful truths to warrant our attention.” Paul Collier, Observer
“We [in the West] have alienated trading partners and are colluding in the decline of our own prosperity, says Moyo, who sets out strategies for weighting the political seesaw back to our advantage.” Iain Finlayson, The Times
“The sad saga of the recession gives legs to Dambisa Moyo’s provocatively-entitled book, for it goes to the heart of the great economic issue of our times: how swiftly will power shift over this century?” Hamish McRae, Independent
Levant: Splendor and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean by Philip Mansel
Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut challenge stereotypes. They were both cosmopolitan cities and centres of nationalism. Using unpublished family papers, Philip Mansel describes their colourful, contradictory history, from the beginning of the French alliance with the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century to their decline in the mid twentieth century. Smyrna was burnt; Alexandria Egyptianised; Beirut lacerated by civil war.
Levant is the first history in English of these cities in the modern age. It is also a challenge from history. It is about ourselves; it shows how Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived together in cities. Levantine compromises, putting deals before ideals, pragmatism before ideology, made these cities work, until states reclaimed them for nationalism. Each city has, in its own way, a message for today.
“Fascinating…the strengths of the book are colossal. Philip Mansel’s knowledge of the history and culutre of these places is encyclopaedic; he has walked their streets, met the scions of their famous families and penetrated their private archives. His eye for detail is sharp; telling anecdotes are culled from memoirs of all kinds, and the sights and smells of each city are vividly conjured up. At the same time, major developments in political history are explained with clarity and precision. To anyone who has read Mansel’s Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, it will be sufficient to say: read this one too. To anyone who has not, I can only say: read both of them.” Noel Malcolm, Sunday Telegraph
“Excellent…thought-provoking…thoroughly researched…One of its strengths lies in the colourful quotations from letters, diaries and travel narratives.” Giles Milton, Literary Review
“Philip Mansel’s impressive return to the Middle East . . . Instead of composing an elegy on a once powerful civilisation, Mansel has given the Levantine world its chronicle, and restored its weight in history.” Jason Goodwin, Spectator
“With sober judgement but passionate feeling, Mansel has produced a work of formidable scholarship and subtlety, rich in colour, sights, personalities and horrifyingly abundant incident. Levant shows the destructivness of nationalism, offers precepts for the coexistence of Muslims, Christians and Jews and has wisdom and sensibility all of its own.” Richard Davenport-Hines, TLS
“I could scarcely put down this magnificent book, with its galloping narrative, its worldly analysis, sparkling anecdotes and its unforgettable cast of the decadent, the cosmopolitan and the cruel.” Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Financial Times
How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism by Eric Hobsbawm
In the 144 years since Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was published, the doctrine that bears his name has been embraced by millions in the name of equality, and just as dramatically has fallen from grace with the retreat of communism from the western world. But as the free market reaches its extreme limits in the economic and environmental fallout, a reassessment of capitalism’s most vigorous and eloquent enemy has never been more timely. Eric Hobsbawm – one of our greatest historians, born a month before the October Revolution of 1917 – provides a fascinating and insightful overview of Marxism. He investigates its influences and analyses the spectacular reversal of Marxism’s fortunes over the past thirty years.
India: A Portrait by Patrick French
One of this century’s greatest surprises has been the economic and social revolution in India. A country long characterised by such adjectives as ‘timeless’, ‘spiritual’ and ‘backward’ is now viewed through a new set of clichés: ‘hi-tech’, ‘materialistic’, ‘go-getting’. But what is the real nature of this rapid change, and what are its roots? Patrick French has spent much of his life engaged with India, and his landmark new book is filled with the qualities that have won his writing exceptional praise: his love of narrative, sympathy for the individual’s experience, scepticism about official claims, and relish for the mayhem of political life. Examining the cultural foundations that made India’s accelerated transformation from socialist economy to capitalist powerhouse possible, French creates a vivid, surprising picture of what it is like to live at a time when millions have pulled themselves free of poverty – with fortunes made almost overnight – but where violence, corruption and caste prejudice have equally been given new outlets. He delves into Indian society and politics, including the personal story of one of the most powerful women in the world, Sonia Gandhi. And he travels the country’s regions to show how Nehru’s vision of a democratic, secular India has continued to attempt – in the face of conflict and setbacks – to hold this vast, implacably diverse nation together. This is a richly detailed, wide-ranging and hugely rewarding portrait of India.
“French combines his lifelong passion, India, with his scholarly interest…a fascinating anaylsis, revealing a deeper truth.” Salil Tripathi, Independent
“It is a funny, witty book; also dense, gripping, thrilling. What blazes through from each page is French’s absolute and uncondescending engagement with India.” Neel Mukherjee, Times
“French is a fine reporter, with an appealing fascination for all things Indian … an accomplished portrait of momentous times in a remarkable country.” Economist
An Awesome Book of Awesomeness
Awesome South Africa by Derryn Campbell
This is a wonderful, intruiging, surprising and shocking book – not unlike the country we live in – and it celebrates all that is biggest and best and strangest in South Africa. No matter how much you think you know about this country
Flights of Imagination
Mistaken by Neil Jordan
Kevin Thunder grew up with a double – a boy so uncannily like him that they were mistaken for each other at every turn. As children in 1960s Dublin, one lived next to Bram Stoker’s house, haunted by an imagined Dracula, the other in the more refined spaces of Palmerston Park. Though divided, like the city itself, by background and class, they shared the same smell, the same looks, and perhaps, as he comes to realise, the same soul. They exchange identities when it suits them, as their lives take them to England and America, and find that taking on another’s personality can lead to darker places than either had imagined.
Neil Jordan’s long-awaited new novel is an extraordinary achievement – a comedy of manners at the same time as a Gothic tragedy, a thriller and an elegy. It offers imaginative entertainment of the highest order.
“Of all his books, Mistaken is perhaps the most universal – funny, mysterious and ultimately moving.” The Times
“Nothing less than a plangent, incisive poetic wonder of a book.” Patrick McCabe, Irish Times
“The novel is so precisely written, in every detail, each syllable weighed, or so it feels that reading slowly, you find yourself watermarked by a tale you don’t wish to put down, and can’t bear to end…unputdownable.” Scotsman
“Written with great skill, confidence and vim . . . utterly convincing: full of subtlety, delicate, piercing prose, charming, lively dialogue and descriptive passages that are poetic, witty and acute…A fine achievement, a powerful, involving and beautifully written book about identity and loss.” Financial Times
Do No Harm by Carol Topolski
From the author of the brilliant Monster Love. Everyone knows about Virginia: about her stellar reputation as a gynaecologist; about her commitment to her women patients. But does anyone know about the knives? Everyone knows about Faisal too: about his gentle charm and his delight in his family; about his brilliance in the operating theatre. But does anyone know he’s a traitor? And Gilda – everyone knows about Gilda: knows that she never poops a party; that she struts about town with her cackling posse; that she’s a loyal friend. But does anyone know about the rubber? But there’s someone who really does know Virginia, who knows all about her because they’ve been this close from birth. Someone who knows what she does when they’re alone together. What they do with the rosewood box. With the belts. Who knows that good doctors can go bad. Just as she did in Monster Love, her brilliant debut about a horrible crime in a harmless setting, Carol Topolski goes behind the busy routine of a hospital to build a dark, compelling portrait of a good, upright life going horribly wrong…
“Rich, opulent and dripping with danger.” Observer
“Razor-sharp…affecting and superbly spooky. Topolski adroitly probes the murkiest crannies of the human soul.” Time Out
Scream if You Want to Go Faster by Russ Litten
Hull Fair, October 2007. A city still drowning in the aftermath of summer floodwater prepares to wave farewell to Europe’s biggest travelling carnival. For six year-old Billie, Walton Street is a magical playground of wide-eyed adventure. For David and Denise, the fading lights of the Fair signal the birth of a brand new kind of freedom. Rose, a 60-year-old widow seeking a kindred spirit online, is dealt a hand she hadn’t bargained for, while for Michelle and Darren it’s the beginning of a haunted love affair that’s struggling to escape its own past.
As the big wheel turns above them, and the sky comes alive with noise and colour, ten ordinary lives are brought together over a single weekend in the rain-soaked city below. Perfectly capturing the frenetic pace, heartbreaking poignancy and simmering aggression of modern urban life, Scream if You Want to Go Faster is a dark, funny, and abrasive novel from a stunning new voice in British fiction
“A cracker…The book’s style is reminiscent of a fairground ride as it flings the reader from one situation to another, illuminating one tiny piece of life’s drama before sending them reeling to the next. Highly recommended.” Scotsman
“[a] very readable book. The bone-dry humour of the locals is much in evidence…Litten has written for television, and his work has the virtues of television drama (pace, economy)…[He has] energy, ability with dialogue and eye for detail.” Sean O’Brien, TLS
The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins
2002. A young American woman stumbles one morning from the forest outside Berlin – hands dirty, clothes torn. She can remember nothing of the night. She returns to the life she once knew, but soon an enigmatic letter arrives from an unknown doctor claiming to be ‘concerned for her fate’. Shortly after, the city of Berlin transforms. Nazi ghosts manifest as preening falcons; buildings turn to flesh. This is the story of Margaret’s descent into madness and her race to recover her lost history – the night in the forest and the chasm that opened in her life as a result. Awash with guilt, Margaret finds her amnesia resonating – more and more clamorously – with two suppressed tragedies of Berlin’s darkest hour. Harrowing and provocative, beguiling in its lyricism and sensuality, The History of History tells a tale of obsessive love, family ruptures, and a nation’s grief. And it is an elegy to ‘the history of history’ – the role of the German past in the psychic life of the present age. With this first novel, third-year-old Ida Hattemer-Higgins establishes herself as as bold, inventive and gifted writer.
“Stunning…A haunting, beautiful piece of writing” Kate Saunders, Times
”Extravagantly ambitious, wide-ranging in reference, and written with real flair…has already earned comparisons with Borges and WG Sebald.” Observer
”Eerie, brilliant…a remarkable achievement.” Wall Street Journal
”Filled to the brim with interesting ideas…rendered in admirably clear-eyed prose, unsentimental and affecting.” Rachel Seiffert, Guardian
Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall
Our story follows a rag-tag group of Trekkies en route to an annual Star Trek convention. Arriving with homemade uniforms, glued-on prosthetics, and plastic phasers, these fanboys know more than any rational adult should know about Kirk, Spock, Next Generation, particle physics, black holes, and Ricardo Montalban. But when aliens release a zombie plague upon the Earth, all of this Starfleet training suddenly becomes a lot more relevant. Our fanboys find themselves trapped in the Botany Bay Hotel and Convention Center – and desperate to escape. Some will be assimilated. Others will summon the courage of their favorite characters and perform brave feats of heroism. And one reluctant fan will discover his inner Trekkie, rise up, and take command of the crew.
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller
A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops is an intensely riveting psychological drama that unfolds over the course of one Moscow winter, as a young Englishman’s moral compass is spun by the seductive opportunities revealed to him by a new Russia: a land of hedonism and desperation, corruption and kindness, magical dachas and debauched nightclubs; a place where secrets – and corpses – come to light only when the deep snows start to thaw – Snowdrops is a chilling story of love and moral freefall: of the corruption, by a corrupt society, of a corruptible young man. It is taut, intense and has a momentum as irresistible to the reader as the moral danger that first enchants, then threatens to overwhelm, its narrator.
“A tremendously assured, cool, complex, slow-burn of a novel and a bleak and superbly atmospheric portrait of modern Russia.” William Boyd
“An irresistible, sophisticated and compelling thriller of darkly delicious Russian corruption and decadence by a writer who truly understands where the corpses lie buried under the pure Russian snows.” Simon Sebag Montefiore
“A chilling first novel about the slide from relative innocence into amorality. I love the honesty of the writing, and the way the furious cold of a bitter Moscow winter gradually emerges as a character in its own right.” Julie Myerson
“Miller’s taut narrative is a deft mixture of suspense, intrigue and human tragedy. Romantic love, bad faith, self-delusion, cupidity and corruption are fatally entwined in a novel that brilliantly conveys the tawdriness of life in the underbelly of modern Moscow.” Jonathan Dimbleby
“Snowdrops assaults all your senses with its power and poetry, and leaves you stunned and addicted.” Independent
Is Just a Movie by Earl Lovelace
In the town of Cascadu, Trinidad, the 1970 Black Power rebellion has failed. Sonnyboy, hapless and luckless, is desperate to be recognised as part of the rebellion and forces the uninterested police to arrest him. KingKala, a singer, returns from detention and is sidelined in the calypso tent, his music dated and unfashionable. They now hope to make their name in the movie that is being shot on the island – but that too does not end as expected. And so we follow the townsfolk through their experiments in music, politics, religion and love; as, in their day-to-day adventures – be it a game of cricket, the short life of a corner shop or a miracle at a funeral – they begin to see more clearly what their community has to offer for its liberation. Sad and uplifting, humorous but never mocking, Is Just a Movie is a warm, gentle novel about small moments of magic in ordinary life. Earl Lovelace was born in Toco, Trinidad, and has spent most of his life on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. His books include While Gods Are Falling, winner of the BP Independence Award, the Caribbean classic The Dragon Can’t Dance, and Salt, which won the 1997 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. This is his first novel in over a decade.
Pulse by Julian Barnes
The stories in Julian Barnes’ long-awaited third collection are attuned to rhythms and currents: of the body, of love and sex, illness and death, connections and conversations. Each character is bent to a pulse, propelled on by success and loss, by new beginnings and endings. In ‘East Wind’ a divorced estate agent falls in love with a European waitress, but is tempted, despite his happiness, to investigate her past; in ‘The Limner’ a deaf painter discovers his patron’s likeness after spending time among his staff; and in ‘Marriage Lines’, a widower returns to a remote Scottish Island to relive a favourite holiday.
These are also lives in flux – in the ‘stages, transitions, arguments; incompatibilities which grow’ – as in the title story, where a man reflects on the break-up of his marriage, brought into new perspective by the actions of his parents; two writers, a ‘good team’, return from an event rehearsing familiar arguments; in ‘Gardener’s World’, a couple bond, fall out and bond again over flowers and vegetable patches.
Ranging from the domestic to the extraordinary, from the vineyards of Italy to the English seaside in winter, the stories in Pulse resonate and spark, each imbued with the humour, poignancy and perception that mark all Julian Barnes’ work. This is an imaginative and expertly-constructed new collection from a master of the form.
“Barnes’ stylish prose, eye for emotional detail and sense of absurdity never let him down… He suits the short story very well.” Literary Review
“…one of the most civilised and culturally rich brainscapes in contemporary fiction.” Sunday Times
“The stories are intelligent: emotionally, stylistically and intellectually. Aesthetically. Also, innovative and experimental without being pretentious or inaccessible. And, oh yes, beautifully written.” Irish Times
“The ways in which human beings misunderstand each another are infinite in their variety, and in his latest volume of stories Julian Barnes describes some of them.” Sunday Telegraph
“With Pulse Barnes reminds us once again that he is a master of the small story…A joy during the act of reading and a source of many complicated afterthoughts, Pulse is a deep and sincere collection of beautifully crafted short fictions. This is an immediate best book of the year that will take some beating in 2011.” Time Out
Field Grey: A Bernie Gunther Mystery by Philip Kerr
Bernie Gunther has been arrested and imprisoned in the Isle of Pines, Cuba. The year is 1954. There he meets Castro, and a French intelligence officer, Thibaud, who liaises between the CIA and French intelligence. Bernie finds himself flown back to Berlin and another prison cell with a proposition: work for the French or hang for murder.
Bernie’s job is simple: to meet and greet POWs returning from Germany. One of these is Edgard de Boudel, a French war criminal and member of the French SS, who has been posing as a German Wehrmacht officer. The French are anxious to catch up with this man and deal with him in their own ruthless way, but Bernie’s past as a German POW in Russia is about to catch up with him – in a way he could never have foreseen.
Field Grey, Bernie Gunther’s seventh outing, delivers more of the fast-paced and quick-witted action that we have come to expect from Philip Kerr. Probably his darkest yet, this minutely researched novel gives us a sense of the hopelessness and contradictory urge ofr survival in the Russian gulag – as well as being a fantastic read!
Book Lounge Giveaway
Why the West Rules for Now: The partners of history and what they reveal about the future by Ian Morris
Why did British boats shoot their way up the Yangzi in 1842, rather than Chinese ones up the Thames? Why do Easterners use English more than Europeans speak in Mandarin or Japanese? To put it bluntly, why does the West rule? There are two schools of thought: the ‘Long-Term Lock In’ theory, suggesting some sort of inevitability, and the ‘Short-Term Accident’ theory. But both approaches have misunderstood the shape of history. Ian Morris presents a startling new theory. He explains with flair and authority why the paths of development differed in the East and West and – analysing a vicious twist in trajectories just ahead of us – predicts when the West’s lead will come to an end.
“Here you have three books wrapped into one: an exciting novel that happens to be true; an entertaining but thorough historical account of everything important that happened to any important people in the last 10 millennia; and an educated guess about what will happen in the future. Read, learn, and enjoy!” Jared Diamond
“A great work of synthesis and argument, drawing together an awesome range of materials and authorities to bring us a fresh, sharp reading of East-West relationships.” Andrew Marr
“The nearest thing to a unified field theory of history we are ever likely to get…I loved it.” Niall Ferguson
“Remarkable…Anyone who does not believe there are lessons to be learned from history should start here.” Economist
To win one of 3 copies, email your name and the name of the book to firstname.lastname@example.org. The draw will be held in March 10th.
Many thanks to Book Promotions for these.